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Biden hosts Asian leaders at White House as Russia demands his focus

The president wants to show he can compete for influence with China even as war rages in Ukraine

President Joe Biden, center, and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations pose for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

President Biden juggled the competing demands of his foreign policy agenda on Thursday as he hosted a summit with Southeast Asian leaders at the White House while managing the United States’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two-day summit in Washington is aimed at showing Biden’s commitment to Asia, where the United States is in a “competition with China to win the 21st century,” as the president often says, even as the war in Europe places heavy demands on his time and attention.

U.S. officials hope the gathering of Asian leaders can strengthen the region’s commitment to a rules-based order in the face of China’s growing military and economic clout.

U.S. officials are touting new initiatives including $40 million in investments for clean energy infrastructure in the region and $60 million in maritime cooperation involving the deployment of U.S. Coast Guard assets to help counter illegal fishing and forced labor. The dollar figure on the combined initiatives amounts to $150 million when combined with other collaborations on artificial intelligence, covid-19 and climate, said a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

“We have long sought strong relations with the region,” said the official. “Where we need to step up our game is both working with countries bilaterally but also working with ASEAN as an institution,” he added, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a bloc of 10 countries that combined make up the world’s seventh-largest economy.

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The visit includes a flurry of meetings with U.S. officials, but some ASEAN leaders have felt snubbed that Biden isn’t holding any formal bilateral meetings with his counterparts, who include Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous country, and Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, which holds the rotating ASEAN chair.

“All the leaders are here in Washington. Why not have extra meetings given the state of global politics and economics?” Kao Kim Hourn, a minister and close adviser of Cambodia’s prime minister, said in a telephone interview.

In response, a senior administration official said the United States is “bending over backward to be the best possible host” and noted that Biden “will have a quick private time with each of the leaders.”

On Thursday, the ASEAN leaders met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to discuss business and investment opportunities. In the evening, Biden hosts the Asian leaders for dinner at the White House.

On Friday, the visiting delegation will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Harris before a joint meeting at the White House with Biden in the afternoon.

Later in the month, Biden will travel to South Korea and Japan, where he is expected to attend the second summit of the Quad countries, consisting of Australia, Japan, India and the United States.

Besides China, the issues expected to dominate the discussions this week are business opportunities, ensuring the free flow of commerce in the disputed South China Sea, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Myanmar.

Myanmar’s leader was not invited because of the military coup carried out last year against Aung San Suu Kyi, and the leadership of the Philippines is also not attending because of the transition following its presidential elections.

Other than Singapore, the region has not taken a particularly tough stand on Russia’s war in Ukraine despite having a strong stake in the principle of sovereignty for smaller, less powerful countries. U.S. officials may seek to push their counterparts to issue condemnations of Russia’s actions, pledge support to Ukraine or join international sanctions efforts.

Kao said ASEAN’s approach to the conflict has been “strategic” and should not be expected to mimic other big powers and multilateral organizations. However, he said, he has pushed neighboring countries to take a more vocal stand on the conflict.

“Cambodia is trying to galvanize the support of all ASEAN member states to issue foreign minister statements to express their concerns and position in regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Overall, the conflict has improved the image of the United States following international missteps in recent years, including in Afghanistan, according to some analysts.

“ASEAN sees Russia’s massive miscalculation, China’s initial effort to back Russia with ‘no limits’ and the U.S. coalition’s actions, and has an even clearer-eyed appreciation for U.S. leadership,” said Satu Limaye, a Southeast Asia expert at the East-West Center in Washington.